Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

William McGonagall: The Tay Bridge Disaster

July 27, 2018
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

You may have heard of the nineteenth century Scots poet William McGonagall, the one often described as the worst poet ever, the man whose public performances were packed by people who went to laugh at him and his poetry. His is truly a very sad story, although he does seem to have been largely oblivious to what really went on…

But remembering him set me thinking about good and bad poetry

When I was first teaching, practical criticism was a full two-year course, preparation for a single unseen paper at A level, where the student would meet two texts, one poetry and one prose, and would have to write an analytical and appreciative essay on each. Only once was a text set that I’d used with some of my students a couple of years previously.

So preparation for this paper involved exploring poetry and prose from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, looking at language, poetic techniques, styles, form and structure; it involved learning how correctly to use the language of literary criticism and how to express opinions; it involved learning to evidence one’s analysis and response. Not easy, but interesting, and two years was a decent length of time for a student to become as proficient as they were going to be.

I came to use McGonagall’s famous poem as one of my final pieces of practice with my students. By then, I would give them a text, and ask them to read it to themselves, and to think about and jot down brief notes on particular aspects, preparatory to beginning discussion. After ten minutes or so, we would be ready to begin work together. Usually, a student would be asked to read the text aloud. There were times when students would tie themselves in knots trying to say positive things about the poem, taking things like rhyme, rhythm and metre seriously. (Try it.) How quickly they were able to realise how bad the poem was, was a touchstone of how competent and confident they had become in their analytical abilities. I tried to keep a straight face through all this. I wish I could remember which student it was, who, at the end of the few minutes of silent study looked up and said, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’

So what is wrong with the poem? There are some terrible rhymes – Edinburgh and sorrow, for instance, and some forced rhymes, as in think of a word that will rhyme with x and it will do, forced into the poem anyhow. There is no sense of metre, so that rhyming pairs of lines jar appallingly. There is needless repetition of phrases and lines, perhaps with the hope of a refrain-like effect. The poet strains to covey a sense of tragedy but fails completely, partly because the metre he’s trying to use is a rather jolly one, when he sticks to it for long enough. And then there’s the civil engineering moral tacked onto the end…

I remember, from my time as a school pupil, being told to write a poem. God, how I hated it. I didn’t understand metre, couldn’t get the right number of syllables to a line, got the stresses all in the wrong places, thought it had to rhyme. It was a peculiar form of torment, which I tried very hard to mitigate when I was teaching (see here). I firmly believe that the starting point of a poem is inspiration of some kind – which you either have or don’t – the ideas or sensations produce the words and images, which are then either worked over, tweaked and improved or not, and then offered to readers or not. A good poet, and a good poem, can make me see something I’ve never seen before, or look at something in a way I’ve never thought of, for a (brief) moment taking me away from myself and my pedestrian reality.

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On no longer being a teacher

July 12, 2016

It’s now coming up to five years since I taught my last lesson, walked out of the classroom and my career as an English teacher came to an end. It took a long time for what that meant to really hit me; recently I’ve been thinking about what it actually meant.

A major change – the major change, I’ve realised – is that I now spend most of my time, not with young people, energetic, lively and with the world and their futures before them, but with people of my own age and older, with a far different outlook and rather narrower future prospects. I continue to miss my students, some of whom I’m still in contact with via social media, and they are now developing careers and lives of their own, becoming so much more than the young people I came to know within the four walls of a classroom. One of the great things about being a teacher, as well as one of the sadnesses, is seeing your students outgrow you. I miss the liveliness of the classroom, the interaction, the discussions and arguments, the continually being kept on my toes by the need to be a couple of steps ahead of them all. And I miss my teaching colleagues, too.

But this piece is not intended as a retired teacher’s wallowing in nostalgia. I have tried to keep up with my subject, and what is going on in the world of teaching and education since I bade it farewell, and have been shocked by what I’ve seen: the political games continue, the examination specifications continue to be changed far too frequently, teachers and their students are ever more at the mercy of data managers and bean counters seeking new ways to weigh the pig. Entry to university seems to have become even more complicated, and certainly far more costly; students rightly seek to know if they are getting value for money, and my impression is that often they are not.

The most shocking thing that has been brought to my attention, by a former teaching colleague, is the effect of all the pressure and stress on the mental health of school students, reflected in the increasing numbers experiencing quite serious problems and needing professional help for them.

I’m both horrified and outraged by what’s happening. All of education is transformed into a highly competitive business; instead of offering support and help to young people at a formative stage in their lives, who are trying to get to know themselves and find their way, we are subjecting them to often unbearable levels of stress and pressure.

Children must begin to learn to read and spell and climb onto the academic treadmill before they are ready, at an age when they should be playing; they must be tested regularly and told they are not succeeding or not up to average (by people who don’t understand the concept of an ‘average’); students must choose – at an age when they may not be ready to make choices – subjects for study that may restrict, constrain and limit their future lives, careers and happiness, not subjects that they enjoy, necessarily, but ones which they are told will set them up for future financial success – allegedly. And, when they might be enjoying the freedom to be students at university, before settling down to the relative seriousness of a working life, they are already saddling themselves with a mountain of debt.

All of this was happening while I was still teaching, but it has got far worse; I wouldn’t want to be trying to advise my students on wise and sensible choices. I’m profoundly grateful that I was educated in a more relaxed, more generous and more liberal age; I used to explain this to students and tell them that I felt they were also entitled to such treatment; a country like ours needs to be investing in its future, not auctioning it off to the highest bidder…and a rich country like ours can surely afford it.

And so, although I started off by saying what I missed about teaching, I’m also very glad I am retired. Perhaps this is a natural aspect of growing older: not that one looks back and says, ‘Things were better in my day,’ but that one realises – even if not yet fully accepting it – that life has moved on, is now passing you by, and that the torch has been passed to younger hands. Other minds than mine now have to wrestle with these issues.

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